What Does this Church, the Bible and the 4th of July Have in Common?

a sermon based on Acts 10:30-36 (The Message)
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on July 6 , 2014
by Rev. Scott Elliott
There is a very funny video on Youtube taken at a family firework party. A Roman Candle is in the ground shooting off hot glowing flares when all of a sudden a little dachshund runs into the picture and grabs the Roman candle in his mouth and runs with it back to the crowd as it fires flares left and right.  With each firing the little dog’s body recoils to the side and each phosphorous flare comes dangerously close to the crowd as it both rushes to get away AND laughs at the little loaded hot dog with a lighted firework shooting off. It is quite a sight! It’ll make you smile.  I guess it is a good thing I did not see anything like that this 4th of July.

It was a year ago this very weekend that I preached my first sermon here in this very Holy space in front of this very Holy congregation.  And, among other things, I mentioned how I love the Fourth of July, and what a blessing it is each year to read words from the Declaration of Independence and preach about God’s presence in it and the holiday and the events and history that surround it– and our country.
There are a lot of words in the Declaration, but one sentence stands out each year and rings with truth and justice and the God who is love. The sentence reads:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

I sometimes think that sentence may be my favorite sentence in all of Western Civilization. Elite men, power brokers of a new nation, dared to not only challenge the most powerful empire in the world, but did so with lofty ideals that included the egalitarian notion that we are created with innate equality and God-given rights.

It never ceases to amaze me that those words were meant to acknowledge rights and equality not just for the elite, but for everyone. That one sentence and genuine belief in it by our founders, and many Americans ever since, have sent this nation on a series of hard hikes toward the goal of equality for all. And walking with the flares of freedom for all going off is not easy. . .
We have all been raised believing in the goal of equality for all, but at the time, on July 4th 1776, the notion of equality for all and unalienable rights for everybody was virtually unimaginable as a reason to create a new nation, let alone the basis for the running of it.
It hasn’t been an easy journey, it’s been a hard hike at times, kinda like that little dachshund we’ve recoiling side to side by the fireworks that real freedom and real equality set off.
We have always had those who do not want rights expanded to everyone. There have always been those who do not believe all of us are created equal, and they have tried to knock us out of kilter and off course from the goals in Declaration of Independence.
And, so, we’ve had a long hard hike out of the low, low desert of slavery. We’ve had a long hard hike out of the wilderness trail of tears and genocide of Native Americans. We’ve had a long hard hike through the drowning sea of Jim Crow laws.  We’ve had a long hard hike up a huge mountain to get to women’s suffrage.  It’s not been an easy journey, or easy roads, or easy trails to trail blaze, to hike, but we have hiked hard.

And of course we are actually still on hard hikes trying to journey over and away from sexism and racism and class-ism and heterosexism and religious fanaticism.
While it is sad that we still have “isms” to traverse, it does my heart good to know that we ARE on the hard hikes to overcome them. We have not accepted them as natural law. Wonderfully, beautifully, the natural law that we have accepted is the self evident truth that all are created equal and entitled to rights that cannot be taken away.

Once we declared that in our Declaration of Independence it became a truth we could not ignore. It has, in fact, haunted us, and motivated and moved us, for two-hundred-and-thirty-eight years. See since the start the ethos of America has always included a deep sense of – and a pull toward– equality and trying to provide and protect rights to life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

It’s in most Americans’ blood to believe everyone is entitled to equal treatment and certain God-given rights.  Equality may not yet play out as a reality for every one, but at the end of the day – despite set-backs in our courts and other political arenas– we seem aimed and hiking toward everyone getting just that, equality and rights that are due . . . long overdue!
And the reality is we have had to take a great many hard hikes getting knocked astray along the way to get to where we are today as the U.S.A. . . . It’s a beautiful story and one worthy of celebration.
What always fascinates me is that this wonderful story has its counter-part in the story of our faith. The Bible is also about people getting what is due under the Creator’s laws.
It’s about equality and God-given rights and a whole series of hard hikes, walks in the dessert and the wilderness, up mountains, across seas and toward a cross and out of a tomb to try and bring it about.
The notion of equality runs deep in the Bible. In the very first chapter we are told that ALL men and ALL women are made in God’s image. All of us are made in the very same Divine image.  In the New Testament Paul puts it like this in Colossians (3:9-11) “there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian (sythe-e-an), slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.”  The Bible has us pegged as equals–all of us made in God’s image, and “Christ is all and in all.”  In Galatians 3(28) Paul famously asserted God’s natural law that everyone is equal. He beautifully wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”   Peter gets this too as we heard in The Message version of Acts 10:34. Peter says “It is God’s own truth, nothing could be plainer: God plays no favorites!”

What is due to all of us equally made, equally images of God, is called “Justice” a word the Westminister Dictionary of Theological Terms defines as:

Classically, the concept of each person receiving what is due. Biblically, the emphasis is on right relationships and persons receiving a share of the resources of society. Concern is expressed for the oppressed and their right treatment. Justice is related to love and grace.

According to the same theological dictionary the term “social justice,” a term that Kim and I both mentioned in the July church newsletter, means:

The recognition of the rights and obligation of individuals and society. Full participation in the institutions and processes of society is a goal. Exclusion and marginalization become forms of injustice.

The point at which our Bible and our Declaration of Independence intersect is at social justice. Jesus states in Luke that he came  “to bring good news to the poor. . . to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free . . . ” (Luk 4:18-19 NRS).   All the things Jesus came to do can be understood as being about equality and the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  To use the language of social justice, Jesus came to give “recognition of the rights and obligation of individuals and society.”   Jesus came to help everyone have “[f]ull participation in the institutions and processes of society . . .”  See, to Jesus “[e]xclusion and marginalization become forms of injustice.”
This is the stuff of our Bible. And it is the stuff of our Declaration of Independence – Thomas Jefferson’s point is equality and fairness.  This July we are celebrating not just the birth of our nation 238 years ago, but the birth of this incredible church community 180 years ago.   On July 26, 1834 we began as a Christ-centered, justice oriented church strongly in support of doing away with the enslavement, genocide and brutality imposed by our nation’s horrible institution of slavery.  We began striving for social justice against the exclusion and marginalization of Africans and African-Americans, who by men’s law were unjustly not given right relationships or right treatment. Nor did those laws recognize their rights, or provide meaningful participation in the institutions and processes of society that were afforded to others.
As Kim pointed out in her wonderful newsletter article,

the church’s founders experienced
difficult times of violent disagreement over slavery, with riots, mobs, and persecution of ministers and members. It was downright dangerous to be an abolitionist, but the congregation never wavered in its commitment; in fact, it was the only area church that openly and actively advocated abolition.

What a remarkable cloud of saints we follow– gutsy, brave and unrelentingly social justice oriented.
And the church did not just opposed the injustice of slavery. The unequal status of women has also long been opposed. It’s reported that pioneer feminist, Amelia Bloomer, attended this church and invited that another famous pioneer feminist, Lucy Stone, to give a lecture in this church on women in the workplace. 1 This took place in 1854, over a hundred years before I was born! How cool is that?   A good many other members of this church community were also involved in the women’s suffrage movement. And many of us still stand up for, and work toward, equality for women in the world today.
We also had members and pastors involved in the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s, some of us even went down south 50 years ago during Freedom Summer to help register voters.

Most of us know that this church is involved in civil rights and fair treatment for our LGBT sisters and brothers too.

And we have, of course, also long been a part of community efforts to provide food and necessities to those in need.

All of these efforts for slaves, women, people of color, LGBT, the poor and frankly for all the rest of us, are about social justice. Each fits in well with Jesus’ commandments to love our neighbors and to do to others as we would want done to us.  They also fit well with the self evidence truths set out in the Declaration of Independence.
May we as a church, and may we as a nation never set aside the core beliefs of our founders that have sent us and kept us on quests for social justice, even as the journey has been difficult, even as the fireworks along the way have sent us off kilter on the hard hikes toward social justice for all.  May we never forget the self-evident truths
that all . . . are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness . . .

1. See,1. See, Lorle Porter, Politics & Peril: Mount Vernon, Ohio in the Nineteenth Century, p 87-88; Amelia Bloomer’s biography on line at: http://www.fofweb.com/History/HistRefMain.asp?iPin=AHBio0338&SID=2&DatabaseName=American+History+Online&InputText=%22Lucy+Stone%22&SearchStyle=&dTitle=Bloomer%2C+Amelia&TabRecordType=All+Records&BioCountPass=23&SubCountPass=25&DocCountPass=5&ImgCountPass=2&MapCountPass=0&FedCountPass=&MedCountPass=2&NewsCountPass=0&RecPosition=31&AmericanData=Set&WomenData=&AFHCData=&IndianData=&WorldData=&AncientData=&GovernmentData=